Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Vigo Valentines 10ish Mile Challenge 2017

I'm pretty sure that the Vigo Runners' Valentine's 10ish Mile Challenge, branded 'tough love' this year, only exists to give the masochistic runners of Kent something to do in the middle of February. I first sampled the delights of this race in 2014 - it was ridiculously hard and left me in pieces (for the record, this course takes around 15-30 minutes longer to complete than a regular, flat 10 mile road race). A few years passed and by the time of the 2017 race, the memories of the terrors that lurked within this stunning area of Kent had faded and I quite fancied giving it another go.

I had added the event into my calendar quite a few months before that date of the race, but hadn't actually submitted an entry. Had I done so in advance, I would have paid the £17 affiliated runner entry fee (unaffiliated runners paid £19 in advance). My long-term knee injury had been playing up so I didn't want to pay the money and then have a DNS. In the end it was feeling ok, so I drove down to Vigo Rugby Club with my wife and daughter and entered on-the-day. This cost me £25 which felt a little on the expensive side for a small, local race.

The race started at 10.30am sharp, and three-quarters of a lap of the Vigo Rugby Club playing fields later the course headed off into the woods and the runners could really get stuck into the delights of this brutal, but awesome course. Something that I noticed early-on was that the course this year was slightly different to the version I ran three years earlier - a subject that I'll cover in more detail as we go on.

The course is run mostly on trail paths and through fields (mostly full of mud), but there are a few sections that use roads and other hard paths, which means that the perfect shoes for this are trail shoes. The first few kilometres were a little congested on the narrow forest paths, but somewhere around the two kilometre point, I had settled into a decent pace and was pleased to have found a friendly group to run with.

We continued at a strong but comfortable pace, enjoying and grimacing as we encountered the various ups and downs the course throws at you. Just before the 7 kilometre point, I noticed we had turned onto a road I did not remember from 2014 - it was all uphill. Footstep after footstep we all plodded on. The hill went on and on for a full kilometre and according to my GPS data, the gradient ranged from around 10% through to 27%. I even had to slow down and walk just before the summit.

Turning back onto a trail path, we were immediately sent right back downhill. The trail path here was extremely uneven - I flew down the path and past the half-way point, completely out of control. To be honest, I still have no idea how I managed to stay upright. I tried to slow down, but I just couldn't - this continued for a full kilometre until I finally reached the bottom.

At this point we joined the Pilgrims' Way, which is an ancient footpath that runs between Winchester and the Shrine of Thomas Becket, in Canterbury. Our little group had started to fragment and I headed off on the tail of another runner. The section of the Pilgrim's Way that was used during the race is five kilometres in length and undulates continuously the whole way. Thirteen-and-a-bit kilometres into the race, the course left the Pilgrims' Way, and this marked the beginning of the end of the race.

The headline feature of the race is the almost vertical climb which awaits the runners at the 15.8 kilometre point. However, the detail that seems to get overlooked is that the incline actually starts over a kilometre earlier at the 14.5 kilometre point, so by the time the runners finally reach the bottom of Mount Vigo, they are already broken - or at least I was.

According to a Strava segment, in 2014, I managed to walk and crawl my way to the top in 2 minutes and 33 seconds, but this time around, the grass seemed to be more slippery and I just could get any traction. So again, I walked, crawled and even stumbled my way to the top, but it took me almost a full minute longer to complete the climb. It was nice to see my wife and daughter waiting for me at the top and they took a few photos of me suffering. As soon as I passed them, I had to negotiate the steps that go into the woods - I was truly broken at this point and was questioning whether I would actually be able to start running again.

I managed to get my legs moving, but could only run at a relatively slow pace. A few other runners caught and passed me, and I just had nothing left to even consider trying to take back the positions. The final section was a little different to the 2014 course. Instead of going out onto the main road, the course went back through the woods, which was much more pleasant than the roads the course used in 2014.

A few minutes later, the rugby fields appeared and the finish line was soon in sight. The race director was on the microphone and was introducing the runners to the crowd as they came stumbling over the line.

I had my timing chip removed, a medal placed over my head and a goody bag thrust upon me and before I knew it, I was rummaging through the bag looking for something to eat. I also grabbed some water and a banana from a table next to the finish line. I was totally exhausted and started to sense that I needed to get out of the cold, so I went into the Rugby Club clubhouse and collapsed into a chair. I chatted to a few of the runners that I had run with throughout the race and we were all in agreement that it was a fantastic experience.

I finished the race in 1.26.15 which was almost 2 minutes slower than my previous outing here. However, the revised course was longer and tougher (343m of elevation vs 315m back in 2014). My GPS recorded the new course as 300 metres longer than the old one (it came out as 17.1km / 10.6 miles in total), so on balance it looks like this was actually a better performance than 2014, and that is quite encouraging going forward. I finished in 18th position (16th male) out of a field of 147. The full results were published online and can be found here - Vigo Valentine 10ish Mile Race.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Kent Fitness League 2016/17: Blean Woods

Match 6 of the 2016/17 Kent Fitness League cross country season was held at Blean Woods, Rough, Common, Canterbury. It was my second outing at this venue. The first being a year earlier at the finale of the 2015/16 season where I was taking part in my first race for a number of months.

The parking situation here is not ideal and pretty much involves arriving early enough to grab one of the roadside spaces on Rough Common Road. Once I had found a spot, I headed into the Village Hall to use the toilet - some people get changed in here, but I wanted to keep my jumper and trousers on until the last possible minute.

The approx 8.4km (5.2 miles) race starts and finishes on Moat Sports Ground which is adjacent to the woods. After a little warm up with my daughter, me and my Dartford Harriers team mates gathered for the customary pre-race team photo.

dartford harriers [photo: eden]

The opening section of the race features 1.5 laps of the perimetre of the sports fields. The last time I was here, the fields were very boggy in certain sections, but this year they were much dryer. I started out at a slower pace than I had done at the last few races because I wanted to try out a pacing different strategy.

By the time I made it into the woods, I felt very quite adrift from where I would have usually expected to have been. The course undulates as it works its way through the woods. Underfoot varies between regular muddy trail paths and slightly firmer, stonier paths. I had chosen to wear my cross-country spikes despite previously writing that ' a really aggressive pair of trail shoes would have been ok for this course'.

start [photos: 7t]

As I followed the course around, I remembered why I wrote that. A fair amount of time was spent on the harder surface paths and I did my best to stay to the edges where there was a little more forest debris for my spikes to grip onto. On the other hand there were also sections where I was actually really pleased that I was wearing spikes.

I had a few dodgy moments where I almost rolled my ankle. This was mostly caused by my spikes slipping on tree roots, of which there are a lot and stepping in puddles that were covering uneven or boggy ground. I'd say that out of all of the Kent Fitness League courses, this one possibly has the highest risk of causing an injury. However, it was also a lot of fun.

into the woods [photos: esther / eden / dani]

I continued to make progress through the field of runners, and made it through the half-a-dozen or so small water splashes around the course. During the race I found myself in the company of a couple of team mates and that really helped to keep me motivated to keep pushing as hard as possible.

For the first seven-or-so kilometres, I was feeling pretty damn good. But for the last kilometre, I suffered from a stitch, which made it very difficult to push as hard as I would have liked as I reached the exit of the woods and had to negotiate half-a-lap around the playing fields.

back on the playing fields / finish [photos: esther / dani]

Before I knew it, I had crossed the finish line and managed to hold off any attempts by competitors to snatch my position at the finish line. I worked my way along the finish funnel and was quite amused to be handed raffle ticket number 73, which was exactly the same position that I had finished in at Nurstead Court just a week earlier.

The full results had been processed and published by the end of the day and my club had, yet again, won the combined competition, making it 6/6 wins for this season. I had recorded the course using Strava on my phone and you can see the course data, here: KFL Blean Woods 2017.

post-race [photos: dani]

As I had run this race the previous year with a diminished fitness level, I had wondered how much quicker I might be able to make it around the course. It turns out that the answer was 6 minutes and 13 seconds faster, which I really wasn't expecting, so it was really nice to come away with a new course best time [36.27] by such a large margin.

Official results: KFL Blean Woods February 2017 Full Results

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Mersea Island parkrun

On a fairly mild Saturday morning in February 2017, I headed through Dartford tunnel into Essex and onwards to the most easterly populated island in the UK - Mersea Island, which sits in the Blackwater and Colne estuaries. It is around 7 square miles (18km2) in size.

The name comes from the old English word 'Meresig' which means 'island of the pool'. The biggest industries on the island are tourism and fishing. In particular, the island is famous for its Oysters which are taken from the Oyster beds which date back to Roman times.

mersea island

The island has been inhabited since pre-Roman times and currently has a population of just over 9000 people, the majority of whom live in the small town of West Mersea. The other side, East Mersea is described as a scattered village - this side is mainly farmland, but is also home to Cudmore Grove Country Park, and this is where Mersea Island parkrun takes place.

During the second World War, a number of defensive structures were constructed on the island, and the area covered by the country park is rich with the remnants of this time. There are two intact pillboxes, plus the remains of two gun casemates, a battery observation post and a coastal artillery searchlight down on the beach. These were originally on the cliff top but constant erosion of the cliff face lead to them falling onto the sands below. A third pillbox stood atop the cliff, this also fell but the remains have now totally disappeared.

briefing / start

Before I go any further, let me take you back to the days leading up to my visit. I had read a little about the island and found out the only way to access it (without a boat) is via a causeway called 'The Strood'. Here's the important part - The causeway floods when the high tide reaches 5 metres and this completely cuts off access to the mainland.

The advice when the tide is 5 metres or above is to leave up to 1.5 hours either side of the high tide before attempting to make the crossing - it is not uncommon for people to become trapped on the causeway. So when I was planning my trip, I used this webpage to check the tides. On the day I visited, the high tide was forecast to be at 4.41am and the height at 4.81 metres, so that meant I had a trouble-free crossing when I arrived at about 8.15am.

early part of the lap

With travel in mind, this parkrun venue is quite isolated and the text on the official course page says 'there is no viable public transport option'. The closest train station is in Colchester which is about 9 miles away, and while there is a bus (one bus at 8am) to the island, it only goes to West Mersea and if you took it, you'd be stuck on the wrong side of the island. A taxi from Colchester would probably be the best bet if train was your only travel option (but of course, check the tides).

Once arriving at the country park, there is a car park. Please note: access to the car park for towed vehicles and coaches is not permitted due to restrictions on nearby roads (the approach road is very narrow). Parking charges are currently [Feb 2017] £1 for up to 30 minutes, £1.50 for up to an hour, £2.50 for up to 2 hours, £3.50 for up to 3 hours and £4 for over 3 hours. The money collected is used to pay for park maintenance and to protect the wildlife. Cyclists can lock their bikes to one of the bicycle racks in the car park. There are toilets located adjacent to the car park.

end of tree-lined section / estuary

The meeting point for the parkrun is adjacent to the car park and you'll quite easily spot the gathering of runners and volunteers on the grass at the far end. The course is made up of a short start tail, two large laps, followed by a shorter half-lap and then back along the tail to head to the finish. There are just a couple of tiny changes of gradient during the run, so this goes down as a flat course. For the record, I wore my trail shoes and I think they were the correct choice, however it wasn't terribly muddy when I visited so road shoes would have done the job. Also, I'd have no trouble running this course with a running buggy.

The official description is available on the course page, but to a first-timer to the venue, the course may sound a tad complicated. I found it made a lot more sense once I had taken a look at a GPS trace of the course. Now that I've run here, you might find it quite handy to check out my GPS data. Of course, if you look at the first photo in this post, you'll see the course map handout.

cliff-top path

Anyway, I'll have a stab at a detailed description. The run was started with a countdown and a blast from an air horn. The start is on a relatively wide grass area (watch out for the picnic tables) and the runners head north from here. A right hand turn awaits as the runners reach the northern boundary of the park.

This next section is run on a dirt path through a meandering tree-lined / wooded section. Eagle-eyed runners might spot the bird hide and the lake to their left early on. Towards the end of this section one of the pillboxes is nestled within the trees. After this, the course curves to the right and the trees give way to an open view of the centre of the country park to the right, and the Colne Estuary to the left. There's a tiny stretch of stony path to run on here.

central grassy area

At this point, the course now heads west along the top of the clifftop adjacent to the sea which gradually becomes woodier until you can only see glimpses of the sea through the trees. Now within a second wooded area, the course effectively does a u-turn and the runners head back the way they came, but only a little more inland on a wide grass path.

A tight left-hand turn points the runners back in the direction of the car park where they run directly past the second pillbox. At the end, they turn right to start their second full lap. When the runners reach their third lap, they follow the beginning section of the lap through the tree-lined path, but at the end they run back through the centre of the park (cutting out the seafront section). They soon joins the final stretch of the lap, go past the pillbox, and at the end turn back into the opening start section and run south until they reach the finish line.

finish etc

Barcode scanning takes place right next to the finish line and if you think you've run a personal best you can honk the 'PB Horn'. Once scanned, I headed back off into the park for a cool-down, where I chatted to a couple of marshals and took some photos before returning to the start/finish area. The final runners had just come in and the course signage and finish funnel were being packed away. Post-run, there is a cafe that serves all the usual cafe things, but it only has outdoor seating and I think it was a bit cold for people to hang around.

I'm a fan of courses that feature different sections and lots of turns, so this venue was right up my street. The results had been processed and online by the time I arrived home. I ran at event number 8 and there were 71 finishers - I say finishers because there were at least two more who ran over 4 kilometres of the course before turning to run off along the sea path in the opposite direction instead of finishing the parkrun. Anyway, I'd had a great time and it's safe to say that Mersea Island is another great addition to the set of Essex parkrun venues.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Kent Fitness League 2016/17: Nurstead Court

Fixture 5 of the 2016-17 Kent Fitness League season took place at Nurstead Court, Meopham. This was the second time I had run at this venue, the first being 2 years earlier during the 2014-15 season. This venue is regarded as ‘proper’ cross country and features pretty much everything you could ask for in a cross-country race. It is held in the grounds of Nurstead Court, which is a grade 1 listed medieval building dating back to 1320 with a Victorian fa├žade that was added in 1825.

On race day, one of the open grass fields just off of Nash Street is put aside for car parking and there is ample space available. After a walk along a muddy, splashy path, the race HQ is found in a marquee which is pitched directly in front of the house and some portaloos are usually found just behind it. There is no other changing space available so bear that in mind when you arrive.

[photo: eden summers]

I find this course to be quite a tough mix of all of the various elements of cross-country racing. This is the only course in the entire KFL series which is 100% off-road, so I'd recommend sticking your cross-country spikes on for this one. The start of this 2-lap-course is outside the house, which is at the highest point of the course. After a hundred metres or so, the runners head downhill on a fairly wide grassy section which gets steeper towards the bottom.

At the bottom, the course heads straight back uphill for a short stretch and crosses into an adjacent field. The notable thing here is the very heavy camber which you could find yourself running on – I found it quite uncomfortable in places, but if you get your positioning right, you can find a nice flat groove to run along.

[photo: dawn granger]

Turning for another short climb, the course weaves around and drops back down to the lowest point where the headline course feature is to be found – this is of course, the water splash. It’s always cold and it’s always splashy, but you will find a lot of support here because what could be more fun for the spectators than watching a bunch of grown adults grimacing as they splash their way through a huge, freezing cold, knee-deep puddle. Plus if they’re really lucky they might even get to see a few people fall in.

After this, it’s time for another climb and this one can be quite exhausting with freezing cold feet to deal with at the same time. At the top another course feature can be found – the hay jump. Quite simply a couple of bales of hay across the path which require a little jump to negotiate. With that out of the way, there is some relief as the course heads downhill for a while.

[photo: dawn granger]

Once at the bottom, the runners swing to the right, through some trees and again sent back uphill along the edge of an open field. A brief section through some more trees brings them out on a very muddy, energy sapping, footpath – this must be a couple of hundred metres in length and finishes with a tight left-hander and a short, sharp incline.

Another, shorter section across a field and the runners head into the woods where the path twists and turns. There are all sorts of hazards to look out for such as log jumps, tree roots and low hanging branches. While the kilometre-or-so section in the woods undulates, there is a very nice stretch early-on that is ever-so-slightly downhill and I found this part felt amazing to run along (flying along, twisting, turning, hurdling, and ducking). More course features are found deeper in the woods – the bomb craters: If I remember rightly, there are four of them and all involve a very steep downwards entry followed by an equally steep exit.

[photo: dawn granger]

At the end of the section in the woods, there is another field to circumnavigate. This is followed by a tough incline to negotiate along the footpath which runs adjacent to the long downhill section from the very beginning. Once this section has completely broken you, you’ll have the pleasure of repeating the whole lap one more time before heading back along the flat start straight, and into the finish funnel.

I found the course really tough. I’d probably even go so far as saying that it was brutal and it hurt like hell. It undulates the whole way round, so whenever things start to feel good you know that another uphill section is surely right around the corner. While I was two-and-a-half minutes slower around the course than I was last time, it looks like I managed to pace myself better (there were only 30 seconds difference between my two lap times this year, whereas last time there was a full minute).

[photo: studio gecko]

My club, Dartford Harriers won the combined team competition and that makes it 5/5 wins so far this season. The full results were published the day after the race and I finished in 73rd position overall out of 356 competitors (65th male out of 246). My official time was recorded as 37.42.

Full results: KFL 2016/17 – Match 5: Nurstead Court
GPS data: KFL Nurstead Court

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Dulwich parkrun

I first ran at Dulwich parkrun as part of a Christmas Day double (before they were banished) with nearby Hilly Fields parkrun back in 2012. I wrote a blog post to cover the day, but I didn't really give the venue the full and detailed write-up, so when the Dartford parkrun on tour gang decided that we should swing by for a visit, I jumped at the chance to finally give the venue the coverage it deserves...

The first recorded evidence of Dulwich (which has also been known as Dilwihs, Dylways, Dullag) was in the 967 where it was recorded as a hamlet outside London. It's meaning is thought to have come from the Old English words 'dill' - a white flower, and 'wihs' - a damp meadow, which combined gave the meaning 'the meadow where dill grows'.

dulwich parkrun [photos: 7t / esther]

Modern-day Dulwich lies mostly in the London Borough of Southwark, which at time of writing is home to four different parkrun venues - the others being Southwark, Burgess, and Peckham Rye. It has a few recognised districts including Dulwich Village which is centred around the location of the original hamlet of Dilwihs. The village is the most-desirable of them all, it features many traditional village houses as well as grand Victorian and Edwardian homes. You'll also find the Dulwich Picture Gallery here which is the world's first purpose built public art gallery.

In 1890, some farmland and meadows known as 'Five Fields' were transformed into a public park to designs by Charles Barry Junior (eldest son of Charles Barry, the architect responsible for the current Palace of Westminster). The layout was later refined by Lt. Col. J.J Sexby, who designed Southwark Park and part of Peckham Rye Park.

On 14 April 2012, Dulwich Park became home to Dulwich parkrun and since then, the event has grown from double figure attendances into one that now regularly attracts in excess of 200 participants. Being in London, the event is fairly easy to reach - North Dulwich and West Dulwich stations are both within a 15 minute walk of the park plus there are at least 5 different bus routes which stop outside one of the park entrances.

the flashmob appears / the opening section [photos: 7t]

For those who choose to cycle, there are some fences not far from the start of the parkrun meeting area that could be used to secure bikes. Lastly, for those travelling in a vehicle, there is plenty of free, on-street parking to be had on either Court Lane or Gallery Road. There is some free parking inside the park, but parkrunners are requested to use one of the above roads.

This event definitely falls within the 'flashmob' style of parkrun. After my warm-up freedom run, I was standing near the start area at 8.45am and had seen no evidence whatsoever that a parkrun was about to take place. I saw a friend of mine at this time who needed the toilet, so I showed him where it was (1 minute from the meeting area, hidden behind some trees and bushes). When I returned about 4 minutes later, there were a whole bunch volunteers wearing hi-vis vests and the finish funnel had been set up.

another view of the course / frozen lake [photos: 7t]

If you have never been to this park before, I should let you know that it is well-kept and apart from some very minor changes in elevation, it is flat. There are a number of different areas in the centre of the park which are generally open grass, but every now and then you'll find something like the American Garden, which was regularly visited by Queen Mary. You'll also find a playground, a lake (which was frozen during this visit) and a cafe. Sports facilities include tennis courts, bowling green, and cricket and football pitches. There is also a closed road that creates a loop through the park called Carriage Drive.

This road, which is just a smidgen over a perfect mile, is used for the parkrun course. It's worth noting that when you are in the park on the road, it kinda looks the same wherever you are, so you'll need to make sure you know where you need to head to for the start of the parkrun. The run starts near Queen Mary's Gate which is on the southern side of the loop not far from the tennis courts and the lake.

the course / one of the three sculptures [photos: 7t]

Once the run briefing has taken place, the runners take their places at the start line which is located on a spur where the entrance from the South Circular Road leads into the park. If you haven't worked it out by now, the loop of the park is run 3 times with the run finishing pretty much back where it all started. Underfoot is 100% tarmac so road shoes are always the only option to consider. The course is perfect for buggy running and also for any wheelchair athletes - I think I'm right in saying that both the mens and womens parkrun wheelchair records have been set here at Dulwich.

The road that the loop is run on does, at times, have quite a camber and there are a few sections where the centre of the road offers a better running experience than the 'racing line'. Although the road meanders from left to right (but mostly left as the course is run anti-clockwise), visually not a lot really changes and I found this to be quite a difficult element of the course. It's also worth noting that there are no marshals out on the course and no signage.

more course shots [photos: 7t]

It's worth looking out for the three sculptures on the northern side of the loop - these are called the 'Three Perpetual Chords' by artist Conrad Shawcross. They were commissioned by Southwark council as a replacement for the 'Two Forms (divided circle)' sculpture by Barbara Hepworth which was stolen from the park in December 2011. The new sculptures, which were installed in 2015, represent The Octave, The Fifth and The Fourth from the western harmonic scale.

With the three laps complete and barcodes scanned, there was a little milling around and chatting at the finish area while we waited for the rest of our band of runners to come in. A few minutes later, and in true flashmob style, the large volume of runners that had been standing chatting at the finish line, vanished. Gone. All that was left were the volunteers and the finish funnel, which was soon packed away and all signs of parkrun disappeared for another week.

the finish [photos: 7t]

Some of the runners may have ventured over to 'The Pavilion Cafe' which is the advertised post-run coffee venue. Our merry band of touristing Dartford parkrunners had already made our own plans to head down the road to Forest Hill and sample the delights of the Wetherspoons vegetarian breakfast, which we did.

As we were sat in the pub enjoying a respective breakfasts, our results came through, and while I didn't quite make it around as fast as I thought I would have, I did set a new course personal best. We had visited on event #255 which had 257 participants. I recorded my run using Strava, so if you would like to see the course in detail please feel free to take a look at the GPS file, here: Dulwich parkrun 255.

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